Preparing for Mobile Search Marketing

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Mobile search marketing is still a small part of the search ecosystem. The number of G3 cell phones capable of providing mobile Internet service is still a small fraction of the roughly 200 million mobile phones now in use in the United States. But industry analysts have forecast robust growth for mobile search marketing. Mobile industry-watcher Informa predicts $1.7 billion in revenues for 2007 ramping up to $11 billion by 2011, making it a promising frontier for search marketers.

The search engines are naturally interested in extending their self-serve ad platforms to the cell phone. In early September, Google began allowing its Adwords marketers to create mobile ads to run on the networks of cellular carriers in Germany (T-Mobile, Vodafone, E-Plus, O2), the United Kingdom (T-Mobile, Vodafone, O2, Orange), and the United States (Cingular, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, Nextel). Yahoo has been working since early 2005 with Nokia to provide search services, and is providing search marketing services to mobile carriers in Japan and Britain. Microsoft recently partnered with mobile phone giant Nokia to bring its Live Search platform onto Nokia's latest generation of phones, and has announced that a cell phone add-on to its soon-to-be-introduced Zune MP3 music player is in the works.

All agree that mobile search marketing is hot, but this new platform does introduce new issues and complexities that search marketers haven't had to grapple with before. Fundamentally, traditional (i.e. PC and browser-based) paid search marketing has been straightforward: marketers place messages which most closely relate to a user's query, both in terms of message relevance and on-screen position, and those willing to pay more will achieve the highest volume of clicks. The share of these clicks, which convert to sales or other desirable actions, is a function of the marketer's ability to design attractive, relevant landing pages (as well as marketing good products at competitive prices).

The simple SERP paradigm of multiple organic and paid results, however, quickly breaks down as the search bar relocates itself from the browser/searcher/clicker model toward other platforms in which the central query/response mechanism will continue to be central. The physical size of mobile cell phone browser displays reduces the traditional 1024 x 768 browser window to a tiny screen. Text size must be proportionally expanded to be readable on these tiny screens, which necessarily reduces the number of results, both organic and sponsored, that can be displayed per any given query.

This necessary screen reduction has a very important influence on how marketers must run search campaigns in mobile environments. Because fewer results are displayable, it becomes more critical to achieve top-ranked positions. Marketers who've been able to realize a respectable ROI for their campaigns using lower-tier positions will no longer be able to do so, given that only the top-ranked results will display on a mobile browser. So the penalty for "not being #1" is far steeper on a cell phone than it is on a computer monitor. While it is too early to tell what the effect of this new competitive landscape will be on keyword prices for mobile platforms, it is likely that its result will be to drive them higher, because marketers will compete vigorously for the top spot, which may be the only clickable paid placement.

Of course, in search marketing it's the conversions not the clicks that marketers care about. This means re-tooling creative and optimizing one's landing page/offer pages for the mobile environment. In terms of creative, mobile ads only allow marketers a handful of characters (Google's mobile ad specs call for a maximum of 20 characters), which will make the creation of compelling creative extremely challenging. It will also be a chore for many marketers to rewrite their landing pages in languages such as XHTML, WML, or CHTML in order that they display properly.

While the emergence of the mobile search market will certainly add to every search marketer's task list, you need to be prepared to take advantage of it sooner, rather than later. Many of us in search engine market reminisce fondly of the "old days" of PPC, when competition wasn't as steep, click prices were lower, and ROI easier to gain. The same benefits of being an early adopter will likely accrue to mobile search marketers. The bad news, of course, is that the addition of mobile search capabilities will force you to retool the way your search campaigns run and the way your landing pages are configured. Make sure your inhouse team or SEM agency is up to speed on this new platform and can create or adopt your existing search campaigns to maximally leverage it.

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